"A REAL HERO"

CHAPTER FIVE

     About midmorning the next day, Felipe was in the de la Vega stables.  He was saddling his pinto, intending to ride into the pueblo.  Bending down, he tightened the cinch around the animal's belly.  Two men who worked for the de la Vegas' as vaqueros entered the stables.  Felipe could not help but overhear their conversation as they saddled their own mounts.  Anger boiled up inside the young man.  The two ranch hands led their horses out of the building before Felipe stood up again.

     The ornate door of the hacienda was flung open, causing a loud, thunderous echo throughout the house.  Diego, who was reading in the library, looked up sharply from his book.  He saw Felipe stride into the foyer.  The angry youth stopped and turned his head first left then right.  When he noticed Diego, he traversed the short distance quickly.  Coming to an abrupt halt in front of his adopted father, he began to gesture wildly.

     "Whoa, slow down, Felipe," said Diego calmly.  He set his novel aside.  "I thought you were going into Los Angeles.  What is wrong?"

     Taking a deep breath, Felipe started signing again.  His movements told Diego that he had overheard the two hands talking about what had happened at the tavern the previous evening.  That Tomas had once again accosted Ana Maria, only this time Zorro had interceded on her behalf.  With an accusatory expression, Felipe asked, using their special sign language, why hadn't Diego told him about it?

    "Because I knew this is how you would react," Diego explained, shaking his head.  He reached out a hand to his adopted son.  "Felipe, it is over and done.  The girl is fine, so there is really no need to get so upset.  Zorro took care of everything."

   Felipe flinched away from the reassuring hand.  He gestured, his dark eyes blazing with anger, that he was tired of Zorro fighting all his battles for him.  And, he continued, from now on, he would stand up for himself.

   Diego arose from his chair.  "Now, Felipe, don't do anything rash," he said, trying to soothe the younger man.  "Let me ride into town with you.  I will be just a minute to fetch my jacket.  All right?"

    He made Felipe look him in the eye.  Felipe was still upset, but he nodded.  Diego left the room.  As soon as he was alone, Felipe lunged toward the fireplace, tripping the secret panel.  In a dash, he entered the cave, nabbed a sword from the mounted wall display and returned to the library.  He then ran out the door, weapon in hand.  He re-entered the stables where his saddled pony stood ready.

     Diego returned with his jacket.  He put it on as he walked back into the library.  Seeing that the room was empty, he continued on his way out the door.  He thought that Felipe had just gone ahead to the barn.  When he opened the door, he heard hoof beats and looked out at the road.  There was Felipe already riding furiously to the pueblo.  Diego just could make out the brilliant flash of the sword his son carried with him.

    "Felipe!  Wait!" he called out after the disappearing figure.  He shook his head and headed back into the hacienda.  He went into the library and over to the fireplace.  He did not care, he decided, if Felipe did get mad at him.  He would do anything he could to protect his son and if that meant Zorro. . .  His mind made up, he hit the secret switch.
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     Victoria was in her kitchen, preparing for the lunch rush.  She stood at the wooden table, chopping tomatoes into large chunks.  Her mind wandered from its mundane task as she remember the events of the night before.  It seemed that she would never be able to spend any time alone with Zorro.  She smiled as she thought of the lecture her mother had given her when she had turned thirteen.  Evidentially, Mama had never met anyone who kissed like Zorro.  Or perhaps she had, thus the lecture, Victoria mused.

     Heavy footsteps treading across the wooden tavern floor brought her out of her thoughts.  Wiping her hands on a towel, she went out to wait on the new arrival.  She halted abruptly when she saw who it was.

    "Tomas Quiñones, you have a lot of nerve," declared Victoria hotly.  "You are not welcome here.  Leave, por favor."  She turned away, intending to go back into the kitchen.

     "Wait," Tomas said.  "Please, Señorita Escalante, I want to apologize to you and to the señorita as well.  I know now the way I have been behaving was wrong."

    "I trust you have learned your lesson," Victoria replied.  She nodded her head.  "Very well, I accept your apology."

    "Where is Señorita Ortega?" he inquired.  "So I can beg her forgiveness also."

    "I believe she is running an errand for her mother," answered Victoria.  "You may wait here if you wish.  If you will excuse me, I must get back to work."

     With that she returned to the kitchen.  Tomas sat down at a table, smiling politely.  Once Victoria had disappeared however, his expression changed to one of sneering contempt.  He did not have to tarry long for Ana Maria to return.  She walked into the tavern carrying a small basket on her arm.  She was wearing another of her mother's creations, a flattering blue dress.

     Tomas arose, stopping Ana Maria in her tracks.  He took a step toward her, causing her to back away.  Knowing that Victoria was within earshot, Tomas spoke politely to the apprehensive girl.

     "Please, Señorita, I wish to apologize for my behavior yesterday," he said, his voice dripping with false sincerity.  "I truly mean you no harm."

     Ana Maria was confused now.  Part of her wanted to forgive him, but the other part remembered the terror he had put her through the day before.  She was still debating it in her mind when he offered his arm to her.

     "Will you stroll with me?" he asked gallantly.  "Just a harmless walk through the plaza," he added, seeing the distrust in her eyes.

    "Very well," she agreed somewhat reluctantly and put her hand lightly on the offered arm.

     They left through the front door of the tavern.  As soon as they entered the plaza, Tomas steered Ana Maria over toward the blacksmith's shop.  There, his horse awaited him and his evil plot.  He meant to kidnap the señorita, taking her to his father's hacienda.  Señor Quiñones was away for the day and the servants would not dare interfere with him.  Not that there were many servants left anymore.

     Tomas and Ana Maria made polite conversation about the weather as they strolled along.  He led her around to the side of the smithy with her realizing it.

     Tomas reached into his horse's saddlebag and pulled out at length of cloth.  Ana Maria was puzzled with its purpose until he brought it up to her mouth and promptly tied it behind her head.  He chuckled evilly as she tried to pull it off.  Bringing out another cloth from the bag, he bound her wrists.

     "There is no ‘hero' around to save you today, Señorita," he sneered contemptuously.  He grabbed her around the waist and lifted her up onto the back of the waiting horse.  Ana Maria understood then that he intended to abduct her for his own wicked intentions.  She tried to cry out for help, but to no avail because of the gag.

     Tomas was still chuckling, quite pleased with himself as he was about to mount up on the animal as well.  At that precise moment, Felipe came riding furiously into the pueblo.

     He pulled his pony up quickly as he spotted Ana Maria sitting on the back of Tomas' horse.  On closer inspection, he noticed the cloth tied around her mouth as well as the one binding her hands.

     He realized she was not a willing participant of whatever the other youth had in mind.  Felipe urged his horse over toward the blacksmith's shop.

     As soon as he was near enough, Felipe dismounted.  With sword in hand, he walked challengingly toward Tomas who had drawn out his own weapon.  Tomas pulled Ana Maria down from his mount and put her in front of him to use as a shield.

     "Back off, half-wit!" Tomas shouted at Felipe.  "Get back or I will kill her."  He held his sword up to her throat to emphasize his message.  Tomas had no intention of killing the girl, but the dumb servant boy did not have to know that, he thought.

    Felipe took two steps back, not wanting to cause Ana Maria's demise.  Noticing the frightened girl's eyes upon him, he tried to think of a way for her to escape from Tomas' evil clutches.  Suddenly an idea popped into his head.  He bent his arm then thrust it backward.  He had to repeat it a couple of times before Ana Maria realized what he was trying to get her to do.

    Tomas had no idea what the other youth was doing.  "I said to go away, you. . ."  Tomas never finished his insult as Ana Maria's elbow was thrust sharply into his stomach.  He doubled over as the breath left his body in a rush.  Ana Maria looked over at Felipe who motioned for her to bring her fists down on the back of Tomas' head.  She did but not as hard as Felipe would have liked her to have done.  It worked well enough though as Tomas released his hold on the girl and she spun away from him.  She slipped her hands free from the loosened cloth then tore the gag from her mouth.

     Tomas recovered quickly from the dual blows.  He was, as one would expect, extremely angry with Felipe's interference.  "That does it," he snarled at Felipe.  "Deaf mute or not, I am going to kill you."

     "No!  Leave him alone!"  cried out Ana Maria.

     The two young men ignored her as they warily eyed each other, their weapons ready to strike.  Tomas took the initiative, lunging his blade straight at Felipe's heart.  The blow was neatly parried.  The dual began in earnest then, with Tomas as the attacker and Felipe coolly defending himself.  He had learned his lessons well, listening as well as watching Zorro's skill with a sword.

     The two combatants unknowingly had attracted quite a crowd.  Including a tall masked man who observed from the smithy roof.  Zorro smiled grimly as he watched the intense battle below.  But it seemed his son had the situation well in hand, he thought more than a bit proudly.

     Felipe indeed was faring well.  He took the offensive now, Tomas barely able to defend himself.  Then using a move similar to one Zorro had employed the evening before, Felipe knocked the sword from Tomas's hand.  Tomas lost his balance and fell to his knees on the ground.  Sergeant Mendoza pushed his way through the assembled throng, followed closely by several lancers and Victoria.

     "What is going on here?" the sergeant demanded to know.  Tomas tried to stand up but Felipe threatened him with his blade.  Mendoza turned his attention to the young de la Vega.  "Felipe, what are you doing?"

    "Oh, Sergeant, sir," said Ana Maria as she came up and stood by Felipe.  She pointed accusingly at Tomas.  "It was his fault, sir.  He has been harassing me for days and today he tried to kidnap me."

     Victoria nodded her head in agreement, adding, "It is true, Mendoza.  Tomas Quiñones has been causing nothing but trouble lately."

     Mendoza motioned for Felipe to take his sword away.  He then grabbed Tomas by the back of his jacket, bringing him to his feet.  "A little time in jail should settle him down.  Come along."  He prodded the young rogue toward the cuartel.

   People started to disperse, going back to their own business.  Zorro watched from his rooftop perch while Victoria and Ana Maria had a short conversation.  Felipe had sheathed his weapon and walked over to his mount, intending to return to the hacienda.  Ana Maria followed after him, touching her hand on his shoulder to get his attention.  He turned around to see her smiling face.

     "Felipe," she said slowly, remembering what Victoria had told her about his lip reading.  "I want to thank you for rescuing me today.  And yesterday as well.  I think you are very brave."

    Felipe grinned shyly, his face turning red at her praise.  He wanted to tell her he admired her, but did not know how to go about it.  He pointed at himself, then at her. Ana Maria was puzzled by his gesture, causing the young man to throw his hands in the air in frustration.  It dawned on Ana Maria what he was trying to say.

    "I like you too," she replied.  She reached up and kissed him quickly on the cheek.

     Unfortunately, just at that moment, Señora Ortega stepped around the side of the building and had witnessed the innocent kiss.

   "You hussy," the woman hissed at her daughter as she marched over to the young couple.  She grabbed Ana Maria by the arm, meaning to drag her away again.

    Victoria, knowing what the seamstress was going to say and noticing the girl's extreme embarrassment, commenced to go over to straighten out the señora.  She had only taken a few steps when she felt a hand on her shoulder.  Her eyes grew wide with surprise as she rounded to see who it was behind her.  Zorro put a finger to her lips as she started to speak.

    "Let's help Felipe and his señorita together," he whispered.  Victoria nodded and they both walked over to interrupt Señora Ortega's irrational tirade.

   ". . .always throwing yourself at men," the woman was saying, "I cannot let you out of my sight for a minute without you flirting with every man you meet."

     "Please, Señora," Victoria broke into the harangue.  "You are quite wrong.  What happened was not Ana Maria's fault.  Those boys are drunken boors, they caused all the trouble.  Your daughter is telling you the truth."

     "With a daughter as lovely as yours is," added Zorro, "you must expect men to show interest in her.  And not all of them will have honorable intentions, I am afraid."

    The señora looked over at her child as if she was seeing her beauty for the first time.  Then she cast her eyes to the young man standing next to Ana Maria.  "What about him?" she questioned, indicating Felipe.  "What about his intentions?"

    Victoria leaped to Felipe's defense.  "He is Felipe de la Vega," she declared.  "He is Don Diego's adopted son.  I am sure you have heard of the de la Vegas."

    "Si, I have heard of them," the señora conceded.  They were the most prominent family in all of Los Angeles.  She smiled at Felipe.  "I may have been a bit hasty with my judgements."

    "Oh, Mama," sighed Ana Maria wearily.  "I have tried to explain to you over and over again, but you just would not listen."

    The mother and daughter embraced each other.  Felipe heaved a sigh of relief as Victoria and Zorro smiled, pleased that their intervention had worked.  Zorro turned to speak with Felipe.

   "I think it would be wise for you to head home, young man," he said in a low voice.  "The de la Vegas must be worrying about you."

   Felipe nodded, knowing he was in more than a little trouble.  He mounted his pony and rode out of the plaza, leaving Victoria and Zorro alone.  They faced each other, smiling knowingly.  Zorro spoke first.

    "Well, Señorita, we seem to be alone.  By ourselves."  He closed the distance between them and gathered her up into his arms.  "My afternoon just became free.  So I am all yours."

     Without waiting for an answer, he bent down and kissed her, first on the mouth.  Then the cheek. Then by her ear.  Then her neck.  She had succumbed to the trail of kisses until he reached her neck, then she gently pushed him away.  Quite astounded, he gazed at her, seeing the apology in her beautiful brown eyes.

    "I am so sorry," she pleaded.  "I gave Pilar today off.  I must go back to finish preparing lunch.  This is truly ironic," she shook her head, "usually you are the one always rushing off."

     "I understand," Zorro tried to reassure her.  "Maybe it is for the best.  I tend to have dishonorable intentions myself when I am alone with you."

    He brought his lips down to meet hers once again in a long, lingering kiss.  When he finally tore himself away, Zorro murmured, "Adios, mi querida," and then whistled for his horse.

     Victoria sighed wistfully as she watched the masked man ride off to parts unknown.  She reluctantly turned and traveled slowly back to her tavern.
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     Later that same day, Diego and Felipe strolled into the Tavern Victoria.  Diego has given the younger man a stern lecture earlier about the evils of fighting.  But then he praised Felipe on his fine blade work and his chivalry, teasing him some about Ana Maria.  They also discussed whether or not to tell her that Felipe could hear.  Felipe wished very much to tell her, but Diego wanted him to wait and see just how seriously the relationship developed between them.  Felipe was persuaded by that argument.

     The two de la Vegas sat down at an empty table.  Almost immediately, Victoria came bustling over to greet them.

     "Diego, Felipe," she said with a warm smile.  "What can I get for you this evening?"

     "Two bowls of your delicioso albondigas soup," replied Diego.

     "I just made a fresh pot," she stated happily.  "Coming right up."  She pivoted around and headed for the kitchen.

     Diego did not notice at first that Felipe had suddenly sat up a little straighter.  Then he observed Ana Maria descending the inn's staircase.  Diego could sense Felipe's nervousness as they both followed her progress across the room.  When the young lady stopped at their table, Felipe jumped to his feet.  Diego rose somewhat more decorously as he tried to hide his smile.

     "Please, Señorita, join us," invited Diego.  "We are about to have supper, but you are more than welcome to dine with us.  I am Diego de la Vega and I think you already know my son, Felipe."

      "Si, Don Diego," she said.  "Gracias."  Felipe slid over to his left so she could sit next to him.

     Victoria carried out two steaming bowls of her soup on a tray.  When she saw the new occupant at the table, she smiled knowingly at Diego.

     "Another bowl, por favor, Victoria," he announced as she place the dishes on the table.  She nodded and returned to the kitchen once more.

    Diego moved the bowls filled with albondigas soup in front of the young couple.  Felipe, unsure of what to do, dipped his spoon into his, intending to start eating.  Ana Maria put her hand on his arm to stop him.  She gazed demurely into his eyes.  He took note that hers were a lovely shade of dark brown.

    "Felipe," she enunciated carefully, "I want to thank you again for coming to my aid this afternoon.  It really meant a lot to me."

     Felipe nodded, smiling shyly back at her.

    "This afternoon?" asked Diego, pretending as though he did not already know.  "What took place this afternoon?"

     Victoria had arrived with the third bowl of soup and set it before Diego.  "That Quiñones boy tried to kidnap her," she answered his question.  "But fortunately, Felipe foiled his evil plan."

    "I am very grateful to Felipe," stated Ana Maria as she squeezed the young man's arm.

     "What about Zorro?" Victoria inquired.  "He defended your honor last night"

     "Oh, I did appreciate his help," the girl replied.  "But I hear he does that sort of thing all the time.  I thought Felipe was very brave.  He is the real hero to me."

     Felipe blushed a deep hue of red, embarrassed greatly by Ana Maria's high praise.  Victoria and Diego looked at each other, attempting to hold back their laughter as the younger pair bashfully turned their attention to their supper.
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FIN

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